UK National Parks Guide: England

National parks in the United Kingdom are different than in those in the United States. Both are designed to protect nature, but in England, much of the landscape has housed people, shops, factories, and other development for centuries. It’s true that the boundaries of these national parks encompass a lot of privately owned land (as well as plenty of towns), but everyone works together to preserve these natural resources.

National parks became “a thing” in England in the 1950s, with efforts to protect the bucolic and wild countryside, wildlife, and cultural heritage that today offer a kaleidoscope of remote peaks, quaint villages and farms, wildlife sanctuaries, estuaries, and even major towns.

Here is our take on nine of England’s amazing National Parks:

Peak District National Park

In 1951, the Peak District was designated as the UK’s first national park, now located near Manchester and Sheffield, with easy access by car and train. Measuring in at 555 square miles, it’s the region’s fifth-largest park, with boundaries drawn to maximize access to untamed areas. Like the moors and gritstone cliffs in northern Dark Peak, White Peak is much more populated, and is geologically characterized by striking limestone crags and quarries.

The area is diverse in geography and history, with artifacts that date back to the Mesolithic and Neolithic ages. Humans started building farms and villages in the region back in the Bronze Age. You can find some ancient henges—like the iconic Nine Ladies Stone Circle at Stanton Moor, and Arbor Low, close to Youlgreave. Old hillforts from the Iron Age still exist, like Mam Tor, and of course Roman ruins.

In 1951, the Peak District was designated as the UK’s first national park.

Tourists have visited this area for hundreds of years; philosopher, Thomas Hobbes published “The Seven Wonders of the Peak” in 1636 should you want to compare what’s changed since then (shorthand: not much!).  Visitors gained easier access to the area when the railroad extended into the region in the 1840s; they were attracted to what journalist Daniel Defoe termed “a waste and howling wilderness,” and places like “Devil’s Arse’” and bubbling geothermal springs that had been developed by the Romans as early as 76 AD.

North York Moors National Park

In the North Yorkshire part of England, the North York Moors National Park (established in 1952) encompasses nearly 554 square miles of heather moorland; one of the biggest expanses in all of the UK.

This park it known for fantastic walking, hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Steep escarpments afford beautiful and excellent launch spots for sail planes and paragliders. There is a network of right-of-ways that stretches more than 1,400 miles, with beautiful walks like Cleveland Way that borders the moors and traces the coast line, and the Esk Valley Walk, which runs through one of England’s most stunning valleys. The National Park’s 26-mile Jurassic-age coast is a particular gem, hiding everything from dinosaur footprints to age-old smugglers’ villages.

SEE ALSO: The Lake District

The Broads National Park

This conservation area is home to England’s largest protected wetland, formed by the flooding of ancient peat bogs and is now home to some of Britain’s rarest wildlife.  The Broads themselves are actually lakes connected by channels that were created in the Middle Ages when medieval monks from local monasteries excavated peatlands for fuel. The Broads, with its seven rivers and more than 60 broads (flooded peat bogs) includes 125 miles of slow-moving water ways, with unique wildlife and plenty of trails and cycle routes.

This conservation area is home to England’s largest protected wetland, formed by the flooding of ancient peat bogs and is now home to some of Britain’s rarest wildlife.

There’s an old Roman fort, windmills built for drainage, and even medieval churches. People have flocked to the area for boating holidays since the late 1800s; by 1878 you could take a train to the Broads from London, and then hire a small yacht to cruise through the lazy waterways and channels. Boats in the park move slowly—by law, in order to limit the destruction of fragile riverbanks by aggressive wakes, however there is a culture of yacht racing, with innovative designs that evolved in the late 19th century with short fin keels and separate rudders. There are no locks to pass under, but five bridges that limit the size of boats. This area is a mecca for bird watchers, as well as artists, anglers and, of course boaters.

Exmoor, “Valley of the Rocks”

Dartmoor

This beautiful expanse of heather-laden moors, medieval villages, rocky granite tors, and ancient stone circles make this park a favorite for walkers. It is the only national park in England that allows wild camping—but know you may be woken up with a blast of hot breath from one of the wild Dartmoor ponies who roam the vast moors. It’s no wonder plenty of movies, novels, and music have been inspired by this wild, wonderful land; there’s beauty and history—in fact the ancient archaeology includes not only stone circles but the longest stone circle in the world.

It is the only national park in England that allows wild camping.

The rugged and wild landscape inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write the famous Sherlock Holmes tale The Hound of the Baskervilles while staying at Princetown.

Exmoor

You can wander through dense wooded valleys, along tumbling streams, through moorland, farms, and deep valleys, but don’t miss the iconic cliffs that tower above the Bristow Channel, which have inspired poets, novelists, and artists for thousands of years.

This 267-square-mile park is remote and tranquil, from vast expanses of open moorland to awe-inspiring coastal views. You’ll find wild red deer and birds, as well as some of the most diverse biology in the UK—including the tallest tree in England. Worried about long days of hiking? Don’t be, as there are countless cozy pubs and quaint tearooms where you can relax with a pint and scone.

RELATED: UK National Parks: Scotland

New Forest

King William the Conqueror protected this vast area in 1079 as a hunting preserve where he and friends chased wild pig, red, roe, and fallow deer. The historical hunting forest is a blend of forest and open hearthland, and has a long tradition of commoning rights for grazing pigs, cattle, sheep, and ponies.

There are still ponies, cows, and pigs roaming the open forest, and big, beautiful ancient trees that date back to King William’s days. The coastline, with its strong maritime heritage, is still wild. You can expect to see plenty of birdlife on the mudflats, saltmarshes, and lagoons.

Northumberland

This park covers more than 400 square miles of northern England. Officially called the Curlew Northumberland National Park, this vast landscape lies between Scotland and Hadrian’s Wall (the UNESCO Heritage Site that dates back to the Roman occupation) and covers about a quarter of the Northumberland region.  It is one of the least visited of all England’s parks, and is the least populated, which means it is an ideal place to go for some peace and quiet.

Plus there’s the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park—Europe’s largest area of protected night sky.

There is plenty to do in the park, including Roman Ruins and other archaeological sites. You can walk the Cheviot Hills that make up the border between England and Scotland, or trek through more gentle moorland and Keilder Forest to the south.

And don’t miss the waterfalls. Residents of Northumberland boast that this is England’s most tranquil park, with England’s cleanest rivers and air. There are two national trails in the park, with plenty of hiking opportunities. But you may have to share the trails with wild mountain goats. Plus there’s the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park—Europe’s largest area of protected night sky.

SEE ALSO: UK National Parks: Wales

South Downs

Britain’s newest national park is known for its beautiful chalk hills which meet the sea at the famously photogenic Seven Sisters white cliffs. Tip: the best shots of the South Downs’ chalk hills are captured in the long shadows of dawn or dusk. The park borders the English Channel Coast, and includes the western Weald, a heavily wooded area of rolling hills. Plus there are old Saxon burial grounds to explore, and one of the oldest cricket grounds in the world.

Tip: the best shots of the South Downs’ chalk hills are captured in the long shadows of dawn or dusk.

Literary buffs will want to visit Virginia Woolf’s home at Rodmell or Jane Austen’s home at Chawton. Hikers will love the 100-mile South Downs Way, which crosses the length of the park, or a visit to the pristine Cuckmere Estuary. After a day of walking, cycling, or riding horseback (an excellent way to explore the hills and vales of this quintessential English countryside) visit one of the quaint traditional village pubs or new thriving vineyards. There are old railways that have been converted to trails—you can follow them from village to village, or try the winding Serpent Trail that traverses for 64 miles through the rich Wealden heathlands.

Yorkshire Dales National Park 

A traditional farming landscape of field barns, drystone walls and flower-rich haymeadows, stone built villages nestle among the lush dales (valleys) and wild heather moorland tops. The Yorkshire Dales contains some of the UK’s finest limestone scenery, and has inspired writers and artists from Bill Bryson to Tolkien.

Walking is popular in the Dales, as is cycling.

The 841-square-mile park attracts about 8 million visitors a year; it was established as a national park in 1954. Walking is popular in the Dales, as is cycling. There are several cross-country hikes (the Dales Way, the Pennine Way, the Coast-to-Coast Walk and the Penning Bridleway). Don’t miss the Dales Countryside Museum with its historic artifacts and great storytelling. There’s an ancient Viking ring and intricate Bronze Age spearhead, plus a neat shop with locally made products.

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